The emotions surrounding the crash of the Collings Foundation Boeing B-17 are still raw as I write. Every airplane crash is one crash too many, but some just get to me. This is one that has. And I didn’t even know any of the people aboard the WWII-era bomber, at least not directly. Regardless—the aviation universe is so small that there are only one or two degrees of separation between us all.
So while I didn’t know the pilot of the B-17, Mac McCauley, I have dozens of friends who did, and they are hurting. And while I’ve never flown on the Collings’ B-17, I’ve flown on and flown more than a few warbirds, and I have the ultimate respect for the talent, dedication and commitment to safety that these men and women pilots have for flying. If there are any of these pilots who fly vintage iron who don’t measure up to that standard, I have yet to fly with them.
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In 2014, Plane & Pilot published an article about the Collings Foundation, an organization with dozens of planes and many, many pilots, but in it, we happened to feature McCauley.
“About the big Boeing he flew, he said, ‘The B-17 is a very stable, nice-flying airplane,’ McCauley answers when asked about flying this piece of history. ‘But, it's so big that it's like driving a cement truck on a go-cart track,’ he laughs. He explains that the bomber is heavy on the controls because all the linkages are mechanical. There are no hydraulics to assist the pilot. ‘It's all cables, so it's slow on the controls.’ And, the trickiest part of flying the B-17? ‘It doesn't like crosswinds. You have this huge mass that wants to swap ends with you all the time.’ McCauley adds that there are three other pilots that fly the iconic bomber, though he spends some 300 days touring with the airplane as a volunteer pilot. ‘I realize how lucky I am,’ says McCauley, ‘and it is an honor to fly it.’”
According to the piece, McCauley had more hours in B-17s than any pilot in history, more than 5,000 as of 2014, a total he surely added to in the intervening five years. From his friends on Facebook, I learned that Mac liked good coffee and would visit the local animal shelters when he was on the road, to walk the dogs, because he missed not having one with him as he traveled on Collings’ nationwide flying tours.
So when people talk about what the pilot should have done differently, I get mad. These commenters have never flown a B-17 or any big warbird for that matter, and when they weigh in on how a pilot flying this kind of plane should’ve responded, they’re not only showcasing their ignorance, but insulting people they didn’t know a thing about while addressing a subject about which they know even less. We pilots are sometimes guilty of acting as though we know everything about every facet of aviation. We don’t. Sometimes we need to shut up and listen. Practice respect.
On a different but related subject, yes, it’s sad that a great old warbird, the B-17 known as Nine-O-Nine, is gone. Is it irreplaceable? It’s not. But even if it were, that wouldn’t matter. This is not about the loss of a plane. It’s about the loss of the people aboard that plane, people your friends or friends of friends knew, perhaps knew well. And it’s about those passengers that almost none of us knew, non-pilots for the most part—men and women who were going on the kind of flight they’d probably dreamed of making for years.
It’s that gulf between dreams like those and the reality of crashes like this that hits so hard. The fact that flying can in one instant breathe wonder into our souls and the very next moment crush it. It’s not fair. But it’s the way it is.
The thing to do next is simple. Go flying. I can’t explain why exactly, but it’s the right thing to do in times like this. And while you’re out there, wag a wing for those flown west, and do it like you mean it. It’s what they would do for us.